The 1960s was the most romantic era of Indian cricket. That ended in 1971 following victories in the West Indies and England, the 1970s had a shorter life, concluding with the defeats in Pakistan (1978) and England (1979).
That Pakistan tour marked the effective end of the great spin quartet and the emergence of Kapil Dev. It also fortified a safety-first approach led by Sunil Gavaskar who understood that not losing was sometimes an achievement. His own batting at the top of the order saved games that might have been lost, and when he captained, 64 per cent of Tests were drawn. The psychological impact of losing to Pakistan was such.
Yet, in the 40 years since that tour of Pakistan, India has won more matches than it has lost in all formats; only South Africa (fewer Tests), and Australia (more) have a better win-loss record, both England and the West Indies finishing on the wrong side of the ledger.
In 1983, India won the 50-over World Cup, and four years after that hosted the tournament for the first time. By 1993, India ensured a level playing field at the International Cricket Council by finally getting England and Australia to drop the power of veto they had enjoyed.
The democratisation of cricket was followed by the flexing of power by India, first under Jagmohan Dalmiya and then N. Srinivasan, both presidents of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. There were more cricket fans in India, more advertisers, greater television interest and a certain amount of economic arrogance, so when the most recent media rights (domestic and the Indian Premier League) were sold for about $3 billion, there were few startled gasps. It seemed natural.
In four decades (actually less), India had established itself as the epicentre of world cricket, generating more funds and, thanks to the diaspora, more interest in the game wherever they played in the world. In the 1970s, Indian officials meekly surrendered on-field advantage when they agreed to fielding restrictions before an England tour that drew the teeth of the spinners. Not so long ago, really. Now the traffic is in the opposite direction — boards across the world want to keep India in good humour.
Cricketers in the past avoided India tours because of its clichéd heat and dust and inconveniences. Today, they are tripping over themselves to come and play in the IPL. No player considers his education complete till he has played in India.
In the past, a Geoff Boycott flew in and flew out just so he could make the few runs needed to take him on top of the highest aggregates list. Today all of them queue up for IPL contracts. This is what money does. It begets more money. It enables you to call the shots. It keeps your hands on the handles of power.
But with the money came the crooks. The bookmakers, the fixers, the bettors, and the shadow across the national team. There wasn’t a law against fixing in 2000 when the scandal broke that finished a popular captain; there wasn’t one in 2013 when the IPL fixing scandal broke, and there isn’t one now.
Indian cricket, nay world cricket itself, has changed more in the last four decades than at any comparable period in history. The game has changed, another format was created, players are better paid even at the first-class levels. Even a casual pick of the all-time 12 Indian team will have between seven and eight players who made their debut in this phase.
The IPL must rate as one of the most dramatic innovations in the last 100 years of cricket. It showed the way for similar leagues in other parts of the world and encouraged similar leagues in other sports in India, including the indigenous kabaddi. It made millionaires of more players more rapidly and more consistently. Many earned more in the six or eight weeks of the IPL tournament than their predecessors even a generation back had earned in their entire careers. Cricket was money, and India was the bank.
Money followed performance, as advertisers saw the advantages of getting Kapil Dev to tell his countrymen what shaving cream he used and Gavaskar what suit he loved to wear. But the floodgates opened in the Sachin Tendulkar era. Over 200 Tests, he was the man who lent his name to an era, the Golden Age. With Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Javagal Srinath and Harbhajan Singh, a team developed around Tendulkar and skipper Sourav Ganguly, the man responsible for a second self-respect movement in Indian cricket after Tiger Pataudi had led the first.
If at one time Gavaskar and Kapil held the records for the highest aggregate scorer and wicket-taker respectively, the Tendulkar generation had more world-class performances to boast of. There was Kumble’s 10 wickets in an innings, Dravid’s 200 catches, Laxman’s 281 which helped India win a Test after following on and has been consecrated as the finest innings by an Indian batsman. Tendulkar’s aggregate remains untouched, and generations to come will wonder how a team of such outstanding individuals failed to dominate world cricket in the manner of the West Indies and Australia of old.
Then there was Virender Sehwag, the most destructive opening batsman of his or any other time, rewriting the textbook with as much glee as he rewrote record books. Two triple centuries, the first by an Indian and a 293 placed him above everybody else. He sang old Hindi songs from Bollywood movies as he batted, and appeared to be on another planet even while those around him occasionally struggled. Uniquely, you could never tell if you walked into a stadium and watched him play whether he was batting on 20 or 200.
We now dwell upon Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He came as a maverick with long hair from little-known Ranchi and developed into one of the finest captains that India has ever had. He began as a destructive batsman in ODIs who could also keep wickets and was pitchforked as captain for the first T20 World Cup in 2007 in the wake of India’s humiliating show in the 50-over World Cup for which Dravid had been the captain.
Dhoni won the T20 trophy and then led India to triumph in the bigger 50-over World Cup at home in 2011. The crowning of India as the No. 1 Test ranking nation also happened and Dhoni had left an indelible mark in all the three formats. He was also grace personified in yielding first the Test captaincy and then the limited-overs one to Virat Kohli. He quit playing Test cricket too along with the handing over of the captaincy in that format.
The decades were also the time of Dilip Vengsarkar, briefly the No. 1 batsman in the world, and Mohinder Amarnath, who hit centuries against the best fast bowling in the game, in Pakistan and West Indies. There was Dilip Doshi, only the second bowler after Clarrie Grimmett to claim over 100 wickets after having made his debut past the age of 30. There was Syed Kirmani, unorthodox wicketkeeper and fighting batsman, and above all, his Karnataka colleague Gundappa Viswanath, the most loved of players by teammates and opponents alike. Viswanath became the first Indian to score centuries against all countries then playing, in Faisalabad. He square-cut the ball like no other, and was in the direct line of succession from the great Ranjitsinhji.
The ’70s saw India win its first Tests in the West Indies, England and Australia; earlier, in 1968, it had won its first-ever series abroad, 3-1 in New Zealand.
The one name common to all those teams was Bishan Bedi, who led India on that fateful tour of Pakistan where the bowling of Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz and the batting of Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad gave their team a 2-0 win in the three-Test series. Erapalli Prasanna played no more Tests, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar played five more, including one on the 1979 England tour where Bedi played three of his six Tests post-Pakistan. S. Venkataraghavan, relatively unscathed because he hadn’t played in Pakistan, lasted another five years and 20 Tests. But the quartet was finished in Pakistan.
It was another eight years before India won a series abroad, when the debutant of ’78, Kapil Dev, led them to a 2-0 win in England. It wasn’t until 2004 that India finally won a series in Pakistan.
From Bedi to Virat Kohli, it has been a rollercoaster ride for Indian cricket. A rollercoaster in slow motion, perhaps, with gently curving highs and delicate troughs, with surprising failures and unsurprising triumphs. The Kohli philosophy is distinct from that of his predecessors. Fitness is at a peak under him, fast bowlers rather than spinners are the main wicket-takers, and aggression is the basis of all competition.
Perhaps the clichés of the last 40 years — wristy batting and cunning spin bowling — will be replaced in the next 40 by hard-hitting batsmanship and fast bowling. Such things happen.
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